The farmer in South Carolina was bashing Jimmy Carter to a campaign reporter.
“But don’t you think he means well?” asked the reporter.
“Oh yes,” replied the farmer. “He sure means well. . . but he do so damn poor.”
Wikipedia put it a bit more eloquently: “His administration suffered from his inexperience in politics. Carter paid too much attention to detail. He frequently backed down from confrontation and was quick to retreat when attacked by political rivals. He appeared to be indecisive and ineffective, and did not define his priorities clearly. He seemed to be distrustful and uninterested in working with other groups, or even with Congress when controlled by his own party, as well as fellow Democratic senators which he denounced for being controlled by special interest groups.[Though he made efforts to address many of these issues, the approval he won from his reforms did not last long.”
Now, thanks to Barack Obama, Carter is looking better even though they share a surprising number of traits. Of course there were others presidents, like little George Bush, who didn’t mean well and did damn poor as well. . But Obama is probably the worst well meaning president of the past century or so.
I know you’re not meant to talk this way about someone who is black, a Harvard Law School graduate, the toy boy of American liberals, and faced with the most repugnant political opposition since the Confedracy.
But unfortunately, the aforementioned attributes have been given such excessive prominence that they have mainly served as a shield around reality, a shield that has successfully concealed the actual Obama since he first ran for public office.
My thoughts here are not ideological. They’re more like those of a sports writer trying to figure out why a player is not doing as well as the scouts predicted he would.
In fact, Obama troubled me from the start. I was meant to be thrilled and full of hope and change, but what I saw instead was a fairly mundane Harvard Law School graduate, intelligent without much visible soul, articulate without much passion, and rising without much reason.
After all, he had spent eight undistinguished years in his state senate, a level of governmental responsibility shared with 1,900 others across the nation. He then spent three undistinguished years in the US Senate before being declared by the Democrats to be the answer to all our dreams.
How did he get on this track in the first place? One reason was that the Democrats, long overdue, were looking for a black or woman candidate. But not just any candidate. Not a Jesse Jackson or Gloria Steinem, for God’s sake, but someone who would play by the rules while looking the part.
Obama reminded me of Chauncy Gardiner aka Chance the gardener, the last manifestation of magnificent nothingness to appear on the American political scene – albeit safely contained in the fictional movie “Being There” while Obama was running for election to a real White House. At the time I wrote:
Like Obama, no one knew where Chance had come from. Even the CIA and FBI were unable to discover any information, with each concluding he is a clever cover-up by one of their own agents.
In the final scene of the film, reports Wikipedia, “Chance is seen apparently walking across the surface of a lake while the most important movers and shakers in the USA discuss running him for President. This scene continues to generate discussion and controversy. Clearly we see Chance walking on water, an act with a clear biblical reference. . . Is there a prosaic explanation, such as hidden stepping-stones? Or is Chance the Savior (as so many of the characters are looking for)? Does he truly possess some special grace?”
The novel upon which the movie was based was written over thirty years ago by Jerzy Kosinski. The Obama candidacy may elevate Kosinksi to one of the most prescient political authors of modern times. After all, what is more Obamesque than the sort of phrase that got Chance started? – “In the garden, growth has its seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.”
Obama rose to the top in record speed in no small part because – as with Bill Clinton – it was clear that he would fit into the growing oligarchical ecology extremely well. Like Bill Clinton, he projected the image of an outsider, yet had fully adapted to the ways of the insiders.
Obama clearly understood this himself. At one point he even described himself as a mirror in which others saw themselves.
In 2008 Paul Street wrote:
At a series of social meetings with assorted big ‘players’ from the financial, legal and lobbyist sectors, Obama impressed key establishment figures like Gregory Craig (a longtime leading attorney and former special counsel to the White House), Mike Williams (the legislative director of the Bond Market Association), Tom Quinn (a partner at the top corporate law firm Venable and a leading Democratic Party “power broker”), and Robert Harmala, another Venable partner and “a big player in Democratic circles.”
Craig liked the fact that Obama was not a racial “polarizer” on the model of past African-American leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
Williams was soothed by Obama’s reassurances that he was not “anti-business” and became “convinced. . . that the two could work together.”
“There’s a reasonableness about him,” Harmala told Silverstein. “I don’t see him as being on the liberal fringe.”
The “good news” for Washington and Wall Street insiders was that Obama’s “star quality” would not be directed against the elite segments of the business class. The interesting black legislator from the South Side of Chicago was “someone the rich and powerful could work with.”
But if you come from nowhere and have nowhere you want to go other than up, you can easily – as Obama has – become a prisoner of the moment and of those most powerful at that moment. There’s nothing wrong with compromise in politics but without a clear destination whose path one alters for survival or future progress, there is no clear way to know how to compromise wisely.
Because of the rudderless quality of their goals (other than ambition), Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were the first Democrats of modern times to be heavily controlled by the same oligarchic forces that had long run the GOP. And Hillary Clinton would be another variation.
And it’s not just corporations. Obama seems strikingly unwilling to challenge the intelligence services purportedly under his authority. The explanation we may never learn, but it is safe to say that our president is subservient to the intelligence leadership as well as to corporations.
Another problem for Obama is that he the first president to be a full fledged member of the new gradocracy –lawyers, economists, MBAs, data drones and policy processors – who first took over American business and now run our government as well.
It didn’t work well for American business and it hasn’t worked well for politics. There is an inverse relationship between the increase in MBAs and the American economic power and creativity. The same can be said for government. This is primarily a cultural, not a political change and so is seldom discussed.
Obamacare was a good example. Not in the past half century has such a remarkably contradictory collection of the good, bad and uncertain been combined in one piece of major legislation, a bill that USA Today claims produced around 11,000 pages of regulations.
This is the problem with putting a gradocrat rather than a good politician in the White House. The health care bill contained some fine provisions but these have been hopelessly obscured by insurance industry petting schemes like the policy mandates and still indeterminable factors such as how much businesses will get around the measure and how much premiums will go up.
Behind this all is not so much misguided politics as a kind of elite narcissism that marks much of the Obama years – the idea that those at the top in Washington are the bright ones who can put it all down on paper and you have to pay the fines if you don’t follow what they say.
This ignores, among other things, the anarchism of complexity. As institutions become more complex, it becomes increasingly difficult to predict the effect of specific policies. Further, the good parts get lost in the displeasure with the badly designed portions. And some of the worst simply gets ignored until they become impossible.
Many politicians used to understand such hazards but today far fewer do.
Whatever Obama’s faults, they’re not all his fault. After all, he is where he is thanks to the support of an elite that also thought it knew all the answers and life, as it always does, has proved otherwise.